Thursday, August 31, 2017

Springfield & Road America Down: 5 More to Go

Austin Theriualt got the Road America win over Riley Herbst (left) and PJ Jones
Over the eight day period from August 18th to the 27th, I drove over 1,300 miles in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. I've also seen lots of laps on two very different types of racetracks and photographed a wide variety of race cars during that time. I've gotten filthy dirty in sweltering heat and humidity as well as dealing with pouring rain. My pedometer app steps count for the two race weekends was not quite a record but I think I should get extra credit for the hills at Road America! I got 38,772 steps in over the three day race weekend there after racking up 15,781 the week before at the flat Springfield mile. So if you want to be a racing photography, then you better be prepared for all kinds of conditions! In the midst of all that, I've worked four days at my regular job as an Algebra teacher, worked on a grant application that is due the end of this month and had work done on my car for a damaged strut. If you want to know when things will slow down, try me at the end of September as this coming Sunday I am back on the road again for another ARCA race - back on the dirt again!

The mile dirt tracks are a unique feature of the ARCA schedule
As I've written before, the ARCA Racing Series is incredibly diverse and this eight day stretch is a great example of that, from the one mile flat dirt track at Springfield, Illinois last weekend to the four mile scenic road course at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin with its extreme elevation changes and mixture of corners. This coming weekend, ARCA is back on the mile dirt again at DuQuoin, Illinois to enter the home stretch of the 2017 season.

Sheldon Creed (center) won the Trans Am race and Justin Haley (right); both have ARCA ties
One of the greatest things about working as a racing photographer is the opportunity to be around all these young kids who want to make it big as drivers. I feel like I know them all when they come up through ARCA. For instance, at Road America Sunday, two youngsters with ARCA ties were on the podium in the Trans Am race. Sheldon Creed won the main Trans Am race; he ran a lot last season with ARCA and had just raced for Mason Mitchell Motorsports at Springfield. On the podium with Sheldon was Justin Haley in third who won at Springfield last year and has raced in ARCA quite a bit. The best part of it all was the fact that Sheldon said he had never driven in the rain before, so he is learning the hard way!

Austin Theriault was a quick learner on the road course
The winner in the ARCA race at Road America did so in similar fashion, although thankfully the weather had cleared by the time the green flag dropped on our 25 lap event. Season points leader Austin Theriault said he had never driven on a road course before last weekend, yet he was able to come from fifth on a last lap restart to win as the leaders spun each other out in front of him, not once but twice, on that final lap. I had no idea what was going on as I had accidentally grabbed the wrong connecting cable for my headphones so I could only hear my radio when I jumped in my car to change locations. I did that a lot this race as even on a four mile road course, 25 laps doesn't leave much time to get different angles.

The view on the Road America frontstretch is amazing
I started the race on the flagstand and left once the green flag flew. I drove over to Turn 14 and stayed about five laps. Then I drove down to the area above Canada Corner and headed down the long flight of stairs to shoot that location for a few more laps, in the midst of which came a full course caution so I had to wait that out. With about 4 laps to go I drove back into the paddock and went out on pit lane to position myself for a checkered flag shot. Then the craziness ensued on the last restart and I headed to Victory Lane. I started off wearing my full rain suit and kept shedding layers of clothes as the race went on until I was down to the basic ARCA uniform of white shirt and black pants as the threat of rain had subsided and I was getting warmed up with all the moving around I did. But it's all good as I hate standing in one place for photos during a race and even working with two other photographers, I still like to move around.

Jeremy Clements got a popular win after late race crashes among the Xfinity leaders
Did I mention I also got to see the NASCAR Xfinity Series cars run too? Their Sunday morning qualifying session got cancelled due to the wet (but drying) conditions and I left before their race was even one-fourth complete, but I got to shoot a few photos in locations I wanted to check out on Saturday during a practice session. The difference in equipment between ARCA and Xfinity cars was noticeable as the ARCA engines have a rev limiter and it sounded like the Xfinity guys were able to really wind their engines out as there was none of the pop-pop-pop sound you often hear with an ARCA car at the end of a long straightaway. And Road America has a couple of very long straights that require some beefy horsepower to turn fast laps. It had been 31 years since my only other visit to Road America and I really got to see the whole track this time since I was working whereas in 1986 I was a spectator and didn't have time to really explore much. It really makes me want to go back now for the Indycar or IMSA sportscar weekends as I'm sure the place is buzzing for those series races as the track is tailor made for high speed, high downforce machines.

I think I might have set a record coming home to Indy from Elkhart Lake as I made it in five hours with one stop for gas. I got through Chicago easily since it was Sunday afternoon whereas on the way up last Thursday night it took me over an hour to get through the heart of the Windy City on I-94. I love those kinds of drives, except for the idiot who wanted to play games on I-65 with me by passing me and then slowing down on three separate occasions. I finally lost him when he got trapped behind a semi and I was home free. When you drive long distance as much as I do, you see some crazy stuff so I was very glad to roll into my driveway about 9 o'clock Sunday evening after three very busy days at the "National Park of Speed" as Road America likes to call itself. Now I get to go get dirty again this Monday and my white shirt still hasn't come clean from Springfield! Oh well. See you at DuQuoin. Or Salem, Chicagoland, Kentucky or Kansas. I'll be at them all.
Austin Theriault was gifted a win at Road America
Brennan Poole is another driver with an ARCA background who is now in the Xfinity Series
The Trans Am race was held in extremely wet conditions; Sheldon Creed was first to the checkers
Austin Cindric (99) seemed to be the class of the ARCA field but got punted from the lead on the last lap

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Winchester Dominated by Kyle Benjamin

Kyle Benjamin dominated at Winchester
The ARCA racing series paid its annual visit to the "World's Fastest Half Mile" last weekend and despite 200 laps of close door to door action, former series regular Kyle Benjamin took a dominant win. This year's race was moved to the first weekend in August after being the last weekend in June the last few years. As an ARCA series photographer, I like the two day format as it gives me more time to experiment and edit. Plus I get to sleep in my own bed since the track is only 70 miles from home! Getting to see all the historic race cars is an added bonus, although I still wish we would race under the lights on Saturday night. I guess I will have to wait for Salem in September for that. 

Zane Smith (55) fought Benjamin hard to keep the lead
The MDM team that Kyle Benjamin drive for has turned into quite a force this year in the select few races they have run. Kyle put that 28 car (which reminded me a lot of the old Havoline paint scheme run by the late Dave Allison in NASCAR) on the pole and was the fastest car all weekend. Even after dropping back to 7th following a late pit stop, there was never any real doubt that he would get back to the front. He was passing people high and low, with an occasional nudge from the chrome horn, but never enough to spin anyone out or get them too out of shape. He absolutely stalked Zane Smith who did everything he could to keep Kyle behind him but his efforts were to no avail. I imagine Zane's 55 car used up his tires trying to use all the track while he was mirror driving to hold off Kyle's 28. And the fateful final restart was just too much for the 55 as the transmission broke under Zane to solidify his heartbreak over running so well once again with little to show for it.

Christian Eckes ended up second after Zane Smith broke
Behind those two was a battle royale for the rest of the top 5 spots as Christian Eckes wound up second, points leader Austin Theriault stayed clean to take third ahead of the WVU Mountaineer Travis Braden at the wheel of A. J. Fike's 27 car. Gus Dean fought everyone off for fifth after several close calls while running the high line. For anyone who's been to an ARCA short track race, none of this should surprise you as the racing is always close and positions are hotly contested among the first ten finishers. What I find different now compared to a few years ago is how clean the races have become on the short tracks. It used to be a battle to see who could win with the most bear bond tape but the level of talent and equipment has risen so much that those days appear to be long gone. I'm sure the teams are glad to see that since it costs them less!

One of my experimental photos made Winchester look like a road course
There's no ARCA race this weekend but the next six weeks will be crazy busy, starting at the mile dirt in Springfield, Illinois next weekend which is a one day show. Then in succession are Road America (three days), DuQuoin mile dirt (Labor Day), Salem Speedway (a Saturday night race), Chicagoland Speedway (the Thursday after Salem) and then Kentucky Speedway 9 days later. This means six races over 33 days spread across the Midwest. After Kentucky there's a four week break before the season finale at Kansas Speedway in October, so the time for teams to make a push for points is now. I am blessed to be able to work all these races and it means I will be on the road a lot with hardly a day off from shooting or teaching between now and September 22nd. So I plan on enjoying this weekend at home, riding my bicycle, writing a grant application, and trying to get my house in order, both figuratively and literally. You can bet I will have much more to share before it's all said and done, so stay tuned. Or come on out to the races. It's a lot more fun being there than watching on television. Until then, here's a few of my photos from Winchester to tide you over.

Green, green, green!

That's some close racing between Zane Smith (55) and Kyle Benjamin
Veteran Bobby Gerhart lost in thought before the start of the race
Series points leader Austin Theriault is all business during practice

Thursday, August 3, 2017

ARCA Season Diversity on Display

Dalton Sargeant got a calculated win at Lucas Oil Raceway
The ARCA racing series just finished a superspeedway race at Pocono Raceway last weekend, the 12th race of its 20 race 2017 schedule, and now enters the most diverse phase of its schedule over the next few weeks. This weekend the tour goes back to the high banked bull ring at Winchester Speedway which bills itself as the world's fastest half mile. Two weeks later the series races a 100 lapper at the historic mile dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Illinois.  The USAC Silver Crown series also races on the mile the same weekend. The weekend after that, ARCA returns to Road America in scenic Wisconsin for a 100 mile road course race alongside the NASCAR Xfinity series. After three days on the Elkhart Lake natural terrain road course, ARCA celebrates Labor Day at the other mile dirt track on its schedule at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in southern Illinois. At that point the series will be down to four races remaining to settle the 2017 season championship. The diversity of the series is one of its hallmarks as a battleground for proving driver talent and no other national series contests a schedule anything like it. I know it is something the series is very proud of, and rightfully so in my opinion. It allows the stock car crowd a way to stay connected to its roots on the dirt tracks while preparing the up and coming future stars of stock car racing for every circumstance from flat short tracks like Lucas Oil Raceway, to superspeedways like Pocono, to the high banked bullrings like Salem and Winchester and even to the mile-and-a-half tracks that wrap up the season in September and October.

Austin Theriault is the overall points leader with 12 Top 10s and 3 wins
If you haven't been to an ARCA race, you really need to go. It's excellent racing and you can get close to the drivers and teams - much more so than any other major racing series that I know of. And you can see the stars of tomorrow today. Not only is ARCA's diversity reflected in its schedule, but its driver lineup is constantly changing. So far this season, a total of 101 different drivers have scored points, so you are guaranteed to see someone new at every race. It might even be a local short track driver you've followed! The roster of winners keeps changing too as only two drivers have won as many as three races:  Austin Theriault and Dalton Sargeant and they are at the top of the season points chart not surprisingly. Justin Haley has won twice in his only two starts this season while four other drivers have each won once. As it stands now, that means 7 different winners in the 12 races so far and with 8 more races to go, that number will certainly grow. No doubt someone will get their first win in their first ARCA start as well since that seems to happen at least once per season.

Austin Cindric put his composite bodied Ford on pole at Lucas Oil Raceway
I know this may sound like musical chairs among drivers or that anyone can come into the series and win, but that is a reflection of the quality of the available equipment with the newer Five Star composite bodies and Ilmor 396 engines becoming more and more prominent. At Lucas Oil Raceway two weeks ago, it was obvious the field was divided into two camps - the drivers wheeling composite bodied cars broke away from the pack of steel bodied cars early. Next season everyone will have to race the composites, so this is another good benefit provided by the series to ensure close competitive racing regardless of who's racing or where.

The prettiest car at Lucas Oil Raceway was the Sinclair sponsored machine of Michael Self
I've been working ARCA races as a photographer for more than 10 years on a regular basis and I have personally witnessed the rising caliber of teams, equipment, drivers and sponsors. There are lots of other stock car series around for teams to choose but I think ARCA is the one most well suited for advancing a young driver's career. Why else would so many young drivers we see week in and week out have driver development contracts with the big NASCAR teams like Roush Fenway? Now we've even got a team with a direct link to Joe Gibbs Racing in the series and that 18 car has a win this year with young Riley Herbst. There's an old joke that asks "Do you know how to become a millionaire in racing?" with the punchline "Start with 10 million." Thankfully you don't have to do that in ARCA as there is also still a place for the weekend racer in the series and for teams run by people who just love to travel and race. I hope the series doesn't lose that quality when the steel bodied cars go away as I really admire how hard the lower budget teams at the back of the field work every race weekend even though they must know their chances of winning are slim. They are racers and that's all that matters.

This weekend I will be back at work at Winchester. The stretch run of the season begins now and I will be working all the rest of the races this season so come out and say hello. Or let me take your picture and help you create some memories at the racetrack. See you down the road! Until then, here's a few photos I shot at Lucas Oil Raceway where Dalton Sargeant got his third season win.

Dalton Sargeant has been hot lately in his Cunningham Motorsports machine
The "King" of stock car racing Richard Petty was at Lucas Oil Raceway to watch his grandson Thad Moffitt race
The composite bodied cars always put on a good show of close racing
Seasoned veterans like Booby Gerhart show up about every week to challenge the youngbloods